The first season of Showtime’s Gothic horror show ended June 29 with a finale that tied up its loose threads with the finesse of Dr. Frankenstein's stitches. It held together, true, but at times it looked a bit unseemly. Series creator John Logan seemed more interested in building character and mood in his first eight episodes rather than telling a straightforward story, but nonetheless he tidily closed the vampire arc as the nest and Sir Malcolm’s daughter Mina Harker all were vanquished. Now season two can start with a new adventure.
Or should it? Does this series need to have a galvanizing mission for the eccentric mix of adventurers to pursue? Perhaps not, as one of the harshest criticisms of the show was that its narrative through line often took the back burner to the characters’ backstories. It was also disparaged by some as being too similar to “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, the landmark comic book series created by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill in 1999. Indeed, “Penny Dreadful” brushed up against that property's equities a lot. Mina was a character in both, and Dorian Gray popped up in the movie version of “League” and was a key figure in Logan’s show too.
One could argue that “Penny Dreadful” doesn’t need to be a Victorian era 'Justice League of Extraordinary Gentlemen', if you will, especially since the better parts of the show had nothing to do with the band of brothers joining forces. The real thrust of the show was exemplified in the final query put to Vanessa (Eva Green). She visited a priest to discuss exorcism, as she had been possessed by the devil. He tells her he may be able to help but she would lose her specialness. “Do you really want to be normal?” is what she’s left pondering.
And that ultimately is the theme of the show. Or should be. What constitutes normal, particularly at a time in history where momentous change was starting to occur? The late nineteenth century saw the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, more humane treatment of mental illness, the Suffragette movement, and international travel. All of this was necessary to open up the minds of Victorian era society, and this show and its unusual characters could be presented as crucial parts of such reckoning.
To that end, I believe that staying focused on these characters learning to accept whom they are, in addition to watching them pursue public approval, could not only serve the purposes of the dramatic, but it would also give this period piece a greater relatability to today’s audience. To build a better sophomore season, here are six suggestions to make this genre effort even more distinguished:
Eccentricity is what holds these characters together, not adventure
Each of the main characters on the show is an oddball butting up against the conservative Victorian era dictum. Dr. Frankenstein defied God and created his own ‘Adam’. Vanessa is a feminist, in touch with her sexuality and even the occult. Heck, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett, doing his best work ever) turned out to be a werewolf, for heaven’s sake! Even Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) is not your typical British gentleman. He’s darker and more brazen. If Logan keeps deepening their peccadilloes then that will deepen his storytelling here.
Drop the Dorian Gray character
He’s a repeat character and a bit two-dimensional. Sure he’s beautiful and hedonistic, but where is the vile sinner who sold his soul? And where’s the bloody painting? I want to see every soul-corrupting sin etched on that canvas. If Gray doesn’t become more of a devil soon, then to hell with him.
Develop the Creature character more
Rory Kinnear’s last scene in the season finale was the most moving of the series. He found new depths of humanity in the very familiar character of Frankenstein’s ‘monster’, as did Harry Treadaway as his creator. Developing a bride for him should be an opportunity to comment on what defines a relationship and a marriage. And that couldn’t be a timelier subject now, could it?
The true villains should be establishment types
Society’s knuckle draggers are always ruinous. Sir Malcolm especially should be showcased going up against club elites who cling to outdated tradition. Vanessa should confront church doctrine. Frankenstein should challenge the medical community lagging behind the breakthroughs at Salpetriere in France at the time (http://bit.ly/1sS0Hwi). “Penny Dreadful”, like its namesake, is great pulp, but it can afford to act smarter and have shrewder villainy.
Spare the gratuitous death and nudity
The show carries with it a wonderful sense of dread in almost every moment, but a lot of the deaths have been gratuitous. Why bring on an amazing actor like David Warner to play Dr. Van Helsing only to have him unceremoniously killed just as his storyline was getting going? And there’s nothing wrong with sex juxtaposed up against death in the horror genre, but sometimes the show seemed more obsessed with naked flesh than “Game of Thrones” over on HBO.
Let Eva Green dominate the show
She already does through her sheer talent and forcefulness in every scene, but her Vanessa should be the show's central focus. She deserves an Emmy for her work in the séance episode alone. And how wonderful it is to see a female character dominate a genre piece. That is all too rare in Hollywood. It's another way that TV horror trumps movie horror these days as strong women lead "Bates Motel", "American Horror Story" and here.
John Logan is one of the best writers in Hollywood, having penned everything from “Gladiator” to “Rango” to “Skyfall” (http://bit.ly/1pFDsnP). And his first series was a good start in the world of television. But “Penny Dreadful” can be something truly special by focusing on its unusual creatures more and not dwelling on the tried and true plot mechanics of these overly familiar monster tales. If it transcends that, this frightener will be right on the money. All it takes is deeper characterizations and a little more Green.